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UNR tries new approach for treating suicidal students

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Truckee Meadows Community College

The counseling center at the University of Nevada, Reno is rethinking how to treat its suicidal students. Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Bliss reports that this semester the center is hosting a trial study for a new approach in the hopes of saving more young lives.

As students meet with UNR counselors at the center, white noise machines in each doorway keep their conversations private. Behind some of those closed doors, students are seeking help because they’re thinking about or preparing to take their own lives.

Across the country, 1,100 college students commit suicide each year and Clinical Psychologist Jacqueline Pistorello says many universities are overwhelmed by how many students need life-saving interventions.

“A lot of counseling centers across the country, they develop a wait list almost, like, three weeks into the semester and that wait list stays on until the end of the semester," she explains. "We used to be that way.”

Check out this study on what  trends are being reported by university counseling centers across the country.

Even though UNR no longer has a waiting list, Pistorello is looking for ways to streamline treatment for suicidal young adults. Right now, the center offers what’s called Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT, which is helpful but quite labor and time intensive because it includes individual and group therapy sessions, along with phone coaching that’s available 24/7.

Some students need that level of attention, but many don’t, so she’s hoping to learn how to figure that out.

“The field in suicidology is moving in that direction," Pistorello says," [with] the idea of “stratify risk” and then being able to funnel people into the most appropriate treatment for them.”

Pistorello is co-investigator for a three-year pilot program funded by a $660,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to test a short term treatment option called Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality, or CAMS. It was created by Dave Jobes, a professor at Catholic University of America in D.C.

While many suicidal people are treated for an underlying mental illness, like depression, Jobes says that CAMS is different because it engages with what he calls the “drivers.”

“A lot of times," Jobes says, "that’s like, ‘My marriage is breaking up,’ or ‘I’ve been unemployed,’ or ‘I lost my house in a hurricane.’ It’s sort of real life stuff.”

For college students, Jobes says the drivers are usually related to relationships, self-esteem issues, or academic anxieties, like choosing a major. CAMS clinicians address those issues head-on.

“It’s so much more than just psychotherapy or counseling or medication," Jobes explains. "It could be a lot of what we call case management. It could be having a meeting with their family to have a big discussion about Dad’s desire for you to be an engineer but what you want to do is be a theater major.”

Janett Massolo, a Reno mother who lost her 15-year-old daughter Shannon to suicide, echoes the solution Jobes has devised.

“Suicide isn’t about wanting to die; it’s about wanting to end the pain," she explains. "So, we as caregivers, as gatekeepers for people need to figure out what that pain is and figure out a way to end that pain without them ending their lives.”

After Shannon died nearly twenty years ago, Massolo starting volunteering at the Reno Crisis Call Center and now she’s in charge of training every staff member and volunteer who’s answering that phone.

Along with implementing new forms of treatment, like CAMS, Massolo says that the community as a whole must recognize that suicidal thoughts are common and should be treated so.

“It’s the stigma and the taboo about suicide that prevents people from reaching out for help," Massolo says. "They don’t want to be deemed mentally ill. If we make it okay and normal to talk about suicide, then the people who are struggling with the thoughts of suicide aren’t so afraid to ask for help.”

Along with the UNR study, CAMS is being tested by the military and in various community counseling centers overseas. If the pilot goes well, the program could be rolled out at other universities in the future.

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.